The Aquarium

Source: Wired Magazine
Date: Jan 6, 1998

The foremost figure in Petersburg's alternative milieu is another Boris - rock musician Boris Grebenshikov. This beloved personage is universally known as BG,or rather BG. Grebenshikov is little known in the West, though he once had an interesting album produced by a fervent admirer, Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics.

It would be a mistake to think that Boris Grebenshikov is merely a rock star, though he is, in point of fact, a major rock star in his own country (and in many other former Soviet countries). Rock stardom never had the same function in a Soviet context as it did in the capitalist West. If you listen to Grebenshikov's music, you hear a guy with the dark, brow-wrinkling sincerity of Leonard Cohen, singing pleasant Russian folk rock over a 4/4 backbeat. But to imagine what Grebenshikov means to his fellow Russians, you have to imagine Cohen, complete with his alternative street cred and literary ambitions, somehow achieving the fame of Elvis and the political clout of Jesse Helms.

Grebenshikov's dense, moody lyrics are poorly understood even by Russians, but it's enough for our purposes to know that he once coined a truly great cultural metaphor. He named his rock band Aquarium.

The concept of Aquarium explains much of what one needs to know to understand the spirit of Saint Petersburg. It is a window city, and an aquarium is all about windows; it's a structure made entirely of windows. Inside an aquarium, harmless, colorful creatures swim. They don't know (or care) much about the world outside. They can see that the world is there, but they know there are glass barriers all around them, so they can't do much about it. They have to concentrate on living in a world that's entirely their own. They're alive, they're even pretty. They're on public view. But they're swimming in a different moral universe. They can't be touched.

The height of Aquarium's fame came before perestroika, when in the dark days of Chernenko and Andropov, any light seemed bright, and people all over the USSR knew that there were people in the aquarium who, against all odds, were somehow daring to live, think, and feel.

Nowadays, Aquarium ( is still a huge band, but rock stardom is just another form of media celebrity. Rock and roll as a Russian social movement is over. Modern pop stardom in Russia is best represented by the indestructible Alla Pugacheva, a Soviet-era chanteuse who recently appeared before the Duma in designer shades and a Stevie Nicks hairdo, bitching about her taxes.

Boris Grebenshikov, who is still writing, still composing, and now in his mid-40s, is still 105 percent attitude. In a recent interview, he declared: "In my opinion, the term 'Petersburg Culture' is a myth dreamed up by people whom it suits and who are making money out of it." Basically, Boris Grebenshikov is modern Petersburg Culture, but there's a lot to what he says: the official version of Petersburg Culture is all about moving tourist product and putting foreign butts into opera seats.

When asked about the sainted corpse of Vladimir Lenin, the irrepressible Grebenshikov further opined: "First, there's a criminal lying there, and not just that - an embalmed criminal. I don't want to start going into metaphysics, but an unburied body is a source of great evil." Boris happens to be a Buddhist - a classic hipster Buddhist, of the Temple of Ginsberg variety. He has arrived at this metaphysical conclusion by unorthodox means, but he's probably right. People in the former Leningrad have every right to feel itchy about the fact that Lenin's not yet shoveled under.

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